The 25-year-old athlete, who was nicknamed “Hulk” in high school after the Marvel superhero, crossed her arms in an “X” gesture during Sunday’s medal ceremony at the Olympic Stadium after claiming silver in her event on Sunday.
After clinching her silver medal, Saunders said she wanted to represent “people all around the world who are fighting and don’t have the platform to speak up for themselves.”
Saunders’s protest is the first test of International Olympic Committee rules which ban protests of any kind on the medal podium at the Olympics.
The IOC tweaked its rules regarding athlete protests ahead of the games, saying that peaceful protests before competition would be allowed.
However the Olympics governing body has maintained a strict rule against protesting on the medal podium.
The IOC is in contact with World Athletics, the international governing body for the sport, and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), IOC spokesman Mark Adams told a news conference on Monday. It is unclear what sanction, if any, Saunders may face.
Updated IOC guidelines released last month say that disciplinary consequences for protests will be “proportionate to the level of disruption and the degree to which the infraction is not compatible with Olympic values”.
The USOPC said before the games it would not sanction its athletes for protesting.
It softened its position on podium protests after a review of rules following nationwide protests in the United States last year in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Experts say the IOC is unlikely to take a heavy-handed approach against athletes for protesting in Tokyo, mindful of the possible public relations backlash.
The purple-and-green-haired Saunders took the silver behind China’s Gong Lijiao.
“I know that in life it is going to be a dogfight – a lot of things aren’t going to come to you easy, so I was kind of expecting it and preparing for it,” she said of the competition.
“I want to make sure that when I’m competing against the best I’m competing against the best at their best.”
Saunders has talked about having substantial issues with mental health a few years back and suffering bouts of depression.
“For everything I’ve been through mental health-wise, injuries, you know, everything like that … being able to really invest everything I’ve had mentally and physically and to be able to walk away with a medal, and be able to go out here and really inspire so many people … I really just hope that I can continue to inspire and motivate.”